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Living in the Family: Thoughts from William Gouge

May 23, 2022
By Joel Beeke

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.

A family is a little church and a little nation.

—William Gouge[1]

There are few better examples of the beauty and glory of Christian living and of Reformed Christianity in action than the lives of the Puritans at home. Their views on marriage and family life were biblical, positive, and lavish. J. I. Packer writes that the Puritans were “the creators of the English Christian marriage, the English Christian family and the English Christian home.”[2] For the Puritans, marriage was sacred because it was a covenant instituted by God himself (Mal. 2:14). Edmund Morgan summarizes their view:

Every proper marriage since the first was founded on a covenant to which the free and voluntary consent of both parties was necessary. . . . Since time began no man and woman had ever been allowed to fix the terms upon which they would agree to be husband and wife. God had established the rules of marriage when he solemnized the first one, and he had made no changes in them since then. The covenant of marriage was a promise to obey those rules without conditions and without reservations.[3]

The Puritans have bequeathed to us the biblical concept of a well-ordered, happy Christian home, where love abounds between husband and wife, and parents and children. Their writings[4] reveal this outlook, and many scholars have confirmed it through the years.[5] Their biblical vision for the home is sorely needed in our day of self-gratification and disrespect for authority, a day in which every man does that which is right in his own eyes.

No Puritan was more important for fostering a well-ordered Christian home than William Gouge (1575–1653). Among the scores of books written on marriage and family living by the Puritans, Gouge’s popular Of Domestical Duties was the most common gift that a Puritan pastor gave to couples whose marriages he was privileged to officiate. This work has recently been edited for the modern reader by Scott Brown and me and republished in three volumes under the title Building a Godly Home.[6]

First published in 1622, this originally seven hundred-page, penetrating analysis of the godly household is divided into eight sections dealing with the duties of family life.[7] In the first part, Gouge explains the foundation of family duties, based on Ephesians 5:21–6:9. The second part deals with the husband-wife relationship. The third focuses on the duties of wives and the fourth on the duties of husbands. The fifth examines the duties of children and the sixth the duties of parents. The final parts examine the relationships and duties of servants and their masters.[8]

While some of Gouge’s material is outdated, his emphasis and advice are timeless on the whole. Brett Usher claims that Gouge is finally being “recognized as one of the subtlest of early modern writers to articulate the concept of ‘companionable’ marriage — his own was regarded as exemplary — and of considerate, rather than merely prescriptive, parenthood. His psychological insights into the nature of childhood and adolescence can be breathtaking in their modernity. He even touches on the question of child abuse, a subject effectively taboo until the 1970s.”[9]

Gouge’s valuable work unveils a skilled expositor who draws practical applications from the Epistles and personal experience in instructing families how to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord Jesus Christ. As a father of thirteen children (seven sons and six daughters), eight of whom reached maturity, Gouge knew what he was talking about. His experience as a parent was augmented the more when his wife died after bearing the thirteenth child, and by the fact that he never remarried.[10]

Most importantly, Gouge was a godly example of the matters he wrote about. His personal life was exemplary. Throughout his life, he maintained the habit of reading fifteen Bible chapters daily — five in the morning before breakfast, five after dinner, and five before going to bed. His biographer writes that his confessions of sin were accompanied with “much brokenness of heart, self-abhorrency, and justifying of God.” In prayer, he was “pertinent, judicious, spiritual, seasonable, accompanied with faith and fervor, like a true Son of Jacob wrestling with tears and supplications.” A contemporary wrote of Gouge: “He studied much to magnify Christ, and to debase himself.” Gouge said of himself, “When I look upon myself, I see nothing but emptiness and weakness; but when I look upon Christ, I see nothing but fullness and sufficiency.”

Gouge’s family saw in him a loving husband and father, a devout leader of family worship, a hard worker, a cheerful philanthropist, a meek friend, a great peacemaker, and an earnest wrestler with God. He had such a meek disposition that his biographer wrote, “No one, his wife, nor children, nor servant with whom he lived and worked all those years ever observed an angry countenance, nor heard an angry word proceed from him toward any of them.”

Gouge suffered from asthma and kidney stones in his later years. His faith held firm, however, through acute suffering until death. He would say, “[I am] a great sinner, but I comfort myself in a great Savior.” Often he repeated Job’s words: “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). When a friend tried to comfort him by pointing to the grace he had received or the works he had done, his response was: “I dare not think of any such things for comfort. Jesus Christ, and what He hath done and endured, is the only ground of my sure comfort.” As he approached death, he said: “Death, next to Jesus Christ, you are my best friend. When I die, I am sure to be with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my rejoicing.” Gouge died December 12, 1653, aged seventy-eight.

In this essay, I aim to set forth Gouge’s views on Christian living — first, on marriage, and second, on raising children, drawing practical lessons from both for the Christian home today.

Gouge on a Happy Marriage

Of course, the foundation of Puritan teaching on marriage was the Word of God. Packer says, “They went to Genesis for its institution, to Ephesians for its full meaning, to Leviticus for its hygiene, to Proverbs for its management, to several New Testament books for its ethic, and to Esther, Ruth and the Song of Songs for illustrations and exhibitions of the ideal.”[11] Volume 1 of Building a Godly Home contains Gouge’s basic exposition of Ephesians 5:21–6:9. In subsequent material in the second volume, however, he gives abundant applications of Paul’s teachings for wives and husbands. Let me offer you a sampling from Gouge about God’s biblical purposes and biblical principles for marriage.

God’s Purposes for Marriage

The medieval church’s view of marriage had largely degenerated into seeing marriage as a necessity for producing children. Serious Christians were encouraged to be celibate in marriage, or better still, to become monks or nuns. On the contrary, the Puritans agreed with the Reformers that Scripture sanctifies marriage and sanctions three purposes for marriage, all of which aim for the higher good of the glory of God and the furthering of God’s kingdom on earth. Gouge presented these three purposes in the same order as the Book of Common Prayer: (1) “the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and praise of God,” (2) “a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication,” and (3) “mutual society, help, and comfort.”[12]

Rooted in the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28, the first purpose for marriage, Gouge wrote, is “that the world might be increased, and not simply increased, but with a legitimate brood, and distinct families, which are the [nurseries] of cities and commonwealths, also that the church might be preserved and propagated in the world by a holy seed (Mal. 2:15).[13] How little this is grasped in our day! Can you imagine yourself saying to your spouse, “Honey, let’s try to have another child for the sake of the church, our city, and our nation”?

The second purpose for marriage is “that men might avoid fornication and possess their vessels in holiness and honor (1 Cor. 7:2). Regarding that process which is in man’s corrupt nature to lust, this end adds much to the honor of marriage. It shows that marriage is a haven to those who are in jeopardy of their salvation through the gusts of temptations to lust.”[14] How contemporary Gouge sounds!

The third purpose for marriage, Gouge said, is “that man and wife might be a mutual help one to another (Gen. 2:18), a help as for bringing forth, so for bringing up children, and as for erecting, so for well governing their family. A help also for well ordering prosperity, and well bearing adversity. A help in health and sickness. . . . In this respect it is said ‘who so findeth a wife, findeth a good thing’ (Prov 18:22).”[15]

All three of these purposes are God’s gift to all mankind, including unbelievers. In their emphasis on the earthly purposes of marriage, however, the Puritans did not devalue its overarching spiritual purpose. Just as Paul set forth to the Ephesians, Gouge taught that marriage is a living depiction of Christ’s relationship with the church, his body (Eph 5:22–33). The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church, while the wife is to show reverence and submission to her husband as the church does to Christ.

The husband’s headship over his wife parallels Christ’s headship over his church (Eph. 5:23). As Christ loves his church, the husband must exercise a “true, free, pure, exceeding, constant love” to his wife, nourishing and cherishing her as Christ does his gathered people.[16] Since Christ’s love for his church is all-encompassing, a husband cannot love his wife adequately because, being a sinner, he always falls short of Christ’s perfect love (v. 25). But Christ’s love to his bride must be the husband’s pattern and goal.[17] The husband must strive to love his wife absolutely (v. 25), purposely (v. 26), realistically (v. 27), and sacrificially (vv. 28–29). Mingled together, the husband’s love and the wife’s respect make for a savory marriage delightful to both. Gouge wrote: “Love is as sugar to sweeten the duties of authority which pertain to a husband. Respect is as salt to season all the duties of subjection which pertain to a wife.”[18]

Given the modern caricatures of Puritanism, it is vital to note that Puritan husbands were rarely male chauvinists and tyrants. Modeling the husband’s headship on Christ’s headship of the church, the Puritans understood that male authority was more a charge to responsibility than a ticket to privilege. Headship was leadership based on love (1 Pet. 3:7). While the man had authority over the woman, Gouge said, “Though the man be as the head, yet is the woman as the heart.”[19]

Since the church humbly and unconditionally submits to Christ, the husband’s headship over his wife means that she should show reverence and yield voluntary submission to him in all things, except when her husband acts contrary to God and his commandments. For Gouge and the Puritans in general, submission was not so much a matter of hierarchy as of function. God assigns the role and duty of leadership to the husband not so he might lord over his wife, but simply to delegate authority to him and not to her. The husband is the head, but Gouge said that God appointed the wife to be “a joint governor” with her husband over their household.[20]

Under the grand, creation-based, Christ-centered vision for the purposes of marriage, the Puritans explained the ethical principles that direct us for a God-honoring marriage.

God’s Principles for Marriage

The Puritans often spoke of “duties,” and Gouge was no exception. By “duty” he did not mean something done out of mere obligation and without heartfelt joy. We must serve the Lord with gladness (Ps. 100:2). But the word duty does remind us that God’s will is not just a principle for successful living or personal fulfillment; it is God’s command and our responsibility. Like most Puritans, Gouge treated the duties of marriage in three sections: (i) mutual duties, (ii) the husband’s duties, and (iii) the wife’s duties. I will present four principles from the first section on mutual duties, then briefly summarize the particular duties of husbands and wives.

(i) Mutual duties

1. Guard the oneness of your marriage. The Author of marriage is God, and by his ordinance he makes two people into “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Gouge called this “matrimonial unity,” and said that “they two who are thereby made one, [are] constantly to remain one, and not to make themselves two again.” He quoted 1 Corinthians 7:10–11: “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.”[21]

Husbands and wives should stay together, not only in the legal bond in marriage, but actually sharing life as they dwell together (1 Pet. 3:7). At times, “weighty and urgent affairs” of church or state require absences, or one’s occupation takes one away on travels for a time. But such separations should be received with sadness, and the couple should quickly return to share the same home and the same bed. The first step to helping each other is being with each other.[22]

2. Enjoy the sexual purity of your marriage. Gouge called this “matrimonial chastity,” for the Puritans regarded as chastity not only single people abstaining from sex, but also married people enjoying sexual intimacy with their spouses (1 Cor. 7:2–4; Heb. 13:4).[23] Adultery was a horrendous crime against the marital covenant, and Gouge condemned it in both men and women.[24] To avoid this, Gouge urged spouses to give each other “due benevolence,” which was a euphemism for sexual love. He wrote:

One of the best remedies that can be prescribed to married persons (next to an awful fear of God, and a continual setting of Him before them, wherever they are) is, that husband and wife mutually delight each in each other, and maintain a pure and fervent love between themselves, yielding that due benevolence to one another which is warranted and sanctified by God’s word, and ordained of God for this particular end. This ‘due benevolence’ (as the apostle calls it [1 Cor 7:3]) is one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage: and necessary for the main and principal ends of it.[25]

This teaching was revolutionary in its day. Marriage and especially sex had fallen under a dark cloud in the early church. Such notables as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome believed that, even within marriage, intercourse necessarily involved sin.[26] This attitude inevitably led to the glorification of virginity and celibacy. By the fifth century, clerics were prohibited from marrying.[27] The archbishop of Canterbury wrote in the seventh century that a husband should never see his wife naked and that sex was forbidden on Sundays, for three days before taking Communion, and for forty days before Easter.[28] Tragically, romance became linked to mistresses and adultery, not marriage.[29]

Puritan preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that the prohibition of marriage is a doctrine of devils (1 Tim. 4:1–3).[30]

The Puritans viewed sexual intimacy within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. Gouge said that husbands and wives should make love “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.”[31]However, the couple’s sexual life should be tempered in measure and timing by proper concern for each other’s piety, weakness, or illness.[32]

The ideal of marriage as romantic companionship was a far greater revolutionary concept in Puritan teaching than is often realized today. Herbert W. Richardson writes that “the rise of romantic marriage and its validation by the Puritans represents a major innovation within the Christian tradition.”[33] And C. S. Lewis says that we largely owe to the Puritans “the conversion of courtly love into romantic monogamous love.”[34]

3. Love your spouse and live in harmony. This is commanded of husbands in Ephesians 5:25 and of wives in Titus 2:4. Gouge wrote: “A loving mutual affection must pass between husband and wife, or else no duty will be well performed. This is the ground of all the rest.”[35] Each should cherish the other as a special gift from God’s mercy.[36] Each should seek to maintain peace with the other so that they may live together in harmony (Heb. 12:14). To your spouse you should be like a haven in a storm-tossed world: “If the haven be calm, and free from storms and tempests, what a refreshing it will be to the mariner that has been tossed in the sea with winds and waves!”[37] But he warned, “Discord between man and wife in a house is as contention between the master and pilot in a ship” — extremely dangerous to both.[38]

Gouge said that your spouse is your “companion.”[39] He wrote: “Neither friend, nor child, nor parent ought so to be loved as a wife. She is termed, ‘the wife of his bosom’ (Deut 13:6), to show that she ought to be as his heart in his bosom. . . . [She is] nearer than sister, mother, daughter, friend, or any other whoever .”[40]

4. Build up each other’s souls with prayer. Spouses must seek the good of each other’s souls.[41] Gouge wrote, “Prayer is a mutual duty which one owes to the other, which Isaac performed for his wife” (Gen. 25:21). He counseled married couples to pray together in private, lifting up requests to God that they would be “one spirit” just as they are one flesh, “that their hearts may be as one, knit together by a true, spiritual, matrimonial love, always delighting one in another, ever helpful to one another, and ready with all willingness and cheerfulness to perform all those duties which they owe to one another.” They should pray for God to sanctify their sexual life, give them children, save their children, provide their family’s financial needs, and fill them with all the gifts and spiritual graces they need.[42]

Gouge went on to give instructions about spouses helping each other to overcome temptation and grow spiritually. They must pray for one another, compliment one another, appreciate one another, and “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” with one another. They must not speak harshly to or provoke each other, but must show kindness to each other and overlook each other’s minor faults. They must cultivate true friendship and take an interest in each other. They must be sympathetic to each other in times of distress, sickness, and weakness. They must promote each other’s reputation, never speaking ill of each other in the presence of others. They must be confidential, not revealing each other’s secrets. Finally, Gouge exhorted them to care for each other’s physical needs, to manage their possessions well, to share their oversight of the household, and to work together to serve others in hospitality and benevolence to the poor.[43]

And these are only the mutual duties — I have not even mentioned the specific duties of the wife and of the husband! In these areas, too, Gouge presents us with a number of striking thoughts. I shall be very brief in summarizing them.

(ii–iii) Duties of husbands and wives

Husbands should delight in their wives (Prov. 5:18–19), esteeming them, respecting them, and seeking to please them, even to the point that others consider it “doting.” Husbands should not allow blemishes in their wives to slacken their affection for them, either. Gouge said, “If a man have a wife, not very beautiful or proper, but having some deformity in her body, some imperfection in speech, sight, gesture, or any part of her body,” he ought yet be so affectionate to her, “and delight in her, as if she were the most beautiful and in every way the most perfect woman in the world.”[44]

Then, too, a husband must provide for his wife in sickness and in health. He must particularly assist her when she is pregnant.[45] He must bestow favors, kindnesses, and gifts on her. He must never strike her or abuse her verbally or physically. At times, a husband might reprove his wife, but only in tender love and always to steer her away from sin. Reproofs, however, should be rare and administered in private with humility — never when his wife is angry.[46] Finally, a husband must accept the functions that his wife performs. He must show his acceptance by his gratitude, by not demanding too much from her, and by giving her freedom to manage the affairs of the home. He must do all this cheerfully and tenderly.[47]

In addition to showing submission and reverence to her husband and fulfilling mutual marital duties, a wife has numerous unique responsibilities. She should be content with her husband’s work, social standing, and financial status. Her conversations with him should also show respect, and she should be willing to move to “dwell where her husband will have her dwell.”

Then, too, she should manage the affairs of the household effectively (Proverbs 31). As a helpmeet for her husband (Gen. 2:18), she should assist him in a variety of ways, showing wise leadership skills in the home, understanding clearly in what areas she should dialogue with her husband and ask for his consent and in what areas she has liberty to manage on her own. Such management includes helping her husband establish Christ’s kingdom in their home as a little church; being thrifty without being miserly; consistently persevering in completing her duties; and handling herself with sobriety, mildness, courtesy, obeisance, and modesty, as the Bible commands.[48]

In summary, Gouge presented a remarkably insightful treatment of the beauty and glory of Christian marriage. His vision for matrimony was holistic and practical, yet very much centered around the Lord. Husbands and wives have different roles, but do not live on separate levels. Instead they live together as companions and coworkers for the glory of God, for the good of each other, and for the good of others, especially their children.

Gouge on the Beauty and Glory of Raising Children

The Christian’s relationship with his family is inseparable from personal sanctification, according to the Puritans. The Scriptures set forth the ways in which we are to live righteously, and since the Bible takes great pains to teach how parents and children should relate to one another, these relationships are an index of sanctification. So it is of primary importance that Christians recognize that holiness and the beauty of Christian living begin at home and then extend to all of life.

While most Puritans believed that the primary purpose of marriage was companionship, they also believed that having children was an expected consequence of marital love. Children were seen as blessings of the Lord. And apparently they were blessings that the Lord bestowed frequently and abundantly. Puritan families were large, with an average of seven or eight children. The infant mortality rate was also very high, however. Typically, of all the children born in a family, only half reached adulthood.

The Puritans were keenly aware that children were a tremendous responsibility, viewing their families as nurseries for church and society. Parents were expected to do everything possible to make sure their children conformed to biblical norms and precepts, especially the commandment to obey their parents.

The taproot of Puritan teaching on parents and children was the fifth commandment (Ex. 20:12), which Paul quotes in his instructions to households in Ephesians 6:1–4: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honor thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

In Gouge’s application of Paul’s words to the Ephesians, he devoted well over a hundred pages in volume three to the relationships between children and parents. Let me give you a taste of his teaching by addressing the spirit of parenting and the tasks of parenting.

The Spirit of Parenting: Authority and Love

Gouge traced out the essence of parenting in terms of authority and love. He taught that parents must raise their children with a mixture of “authority and affection,” which moves children to respond with childlike “fear” and “love.” He compared it to cooking with both sugar and salt: both are needed for a tasty meal lest it be too sweet or bitter.[49] A child’s love is a response to his parent’s affection for him; like the sun shining on a stone, “so the hot beams of parents’ love” shining constantly should warm their children to reflect love back.[50] By fear, he did not mean dread or terror that drives a child away, but a high esteem with a sincere desire to please the parents and hatred of offending them.[51]

God calls both the father and the mother to this noble task, and invests both parents with proper authority to exercise it. The father has first place in the family, both in “dignity” and “duty,” because he is the head of the household (Eph. 5:23).[52] But that does not make the wife into a servant in the home. Gouge noted that the fifth commandment requires honoring both “father and mother,” and taught that children owe “equal respect” to both parents.[53] He wrote, “Though there is a difference between father and mother in relation of one to another, in relation to their children they are both as one, and have a like authority over them.”[54]

This reverent respect should lead children to restrain their own talking around their parents (Job 29:9–10) and to listen patiently when their parents speak (Job 29:21). They must not be insolent, complain, or slink away before their parents have finished speaking.[55] Gouge noted that the Greek word for “obey” in Ephesians 6:1 means “to listen with humble submission.”[56] When children speak to their parents, they should use respectful titles such as “Father” and “Mother”; speak humbly, briefly, and with their parents’ permission; not interrupt their parents’ work or conversations; and give a ready answer when their parents ask a question.[57] Honoring their father and their mother also means speaking respectfully about them when they are not present and not slandering them.[58]

The Puritans understood that Christian obedience must come from the heart, but they also understood that the “disposition of the heart” shows itself in “action.” So Gouge expected children to honor their parents in posture, gestures, and facial expressions.[59] They must not be rude to their father and mother.[60] Of course, Ephesians 6:1 requires children to obey their parents, and Gouge spent more than twenty pages discussing how they should not do what their parents have not given them permission to do, and how they should listen to what their parents command.[61]

All their obedience is governed by the phrase “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1), which “puts forth a limitation, direction, and motivation”: limiting children’s obedience by the laws of Christ, directing them to obey their parents with “an eye to Christ,” and motivating them by the fact that their parents exercise authority as those who “bear the image of Christ.”[62]

Parents do not merely rule; they serve God. Fathers and mothers must likewise remember that they “are as well bound to duty as children.” Gouge explained, “Though parents are over their children and cannot be commanded by them, they are under God.”[63] Someone might object that the fifth commandment addresses only children and lays no duties on parents when it says, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Gouge replied that the law implies obligation on the parents by “good and necessary consequence,” for “they who have honor must carry themselves worthy of honor.”[64]

Though parental authority is the skeleton and backbone that structures the raising of children, the living flesh and blood of parenting is love. Gouge said that the “fountain” or source of all that parents should do must be “love.” Titus 2:4 urges that young women be trained “to love their children.” The Lord said to Abraham, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest” (Gen. 22:2, emphasis added). The work of a father and mother costs them much labor, money, and care, but if they love their children, nothing seems too much. God has planted love for children in parents by nature, and Christians should fan this fire into flame.[65] Out of the fountain of parental love flow many streams, and this brings us to consider the tasks of parenting.

The Tasks of Parenting: Provident Care of Body and Soul

Paul commands fathers to “bring up” their children (Eph. 6:4), which Gouge pointed out means “to feed or nourish with everything needed.” Yet the apostle immediately qualifies this with the words “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” showing “that nurture and instruction are as necessary and profitable as food and clothing.”[66] Gouge placed the entire spectrum of a father’s and mother’s duties under the heading of “provident care for their children’s good.”[67] By “provident care,” he meant that parents not only meet the immediate needs of their children, but also look ahead and prepare them for their future both on earth and in eternity.[68]

Out of the wealth of teaching Gouge offered, let me cull twelve tasks for parents.

  1. Pray for your children. Gouge said that prayer “is the first and it is the last duty which parents ought to perform to their children.”[69] There is nothing parents can do for their children that does them more good than prayer. They should pray before their children are born (Gen. 25:21; 1 Sam. 1:10) and all their lives (Job 1:5), for children are conceived in sin, but the Lord is a covenant-keeping God who loves to bless the children of believers.[70]
  2. Walk in godliness for God’s blessing on your children. Gouge noted that part of God’s reward to righteous people is a blessing on their children. Psalm 112:2 says, “His seed shall be mighty upon earth: the generation of the upright shall be blessed.” We cannot save our children by our faith, but many blessings, earthly and spiritual, come to the offspring of the righteous.[71]
  3. Care for your children in the womb. Gouge urged the pregnant woman to “have a special care” for her child as soon as she knows that she is pregnant. Fathers “must be tender over their wives, and helpful to them in all things needful” when they are with child. He warned that those who intentionally kill a child in the womb are “guilty of blood, even of willful murder,” for that child has a “soul formed in it by God.”[72]
  4. Nurture your children in infancy. Here Gouge admitted, “What the particulars are women better know than I can express.”[73] Interestingly, he made an extended argument that mothers should breastfeed their own children rather than give them to others to nurse.[74]
  5. Have your children baptized. Gouge did not believe that baptism had any inherent power to save sinners.[75] But he believed that God’s command that the men of Abraham’s household should circumcise their sons implied that Christians should have their children baptized (Gen. 17:10). Parents should see that their child is rightly baptized by a minister of the Word (Matt. 28:19).[76] In baptism, Christian parents assume covenant responsibilities on behalf of their children. God, therefore, claims these children as his own; parents are stewards of their children on God’s behalf.
  6. Provide your children with necessities for health. He specifically mentioned food, clothing, medical care, and recreation — the last of which is notable because some people think the Puritans were against all kinds of fun. On the contrary, Gouge noted that the prophet Zechariah rejoices over a vision of “boys and girls playing” (8:5).[77] However, Gouge also noted Proverbs 27:7, “The full soul loatheth an honeycomb,” and warned that too much food, fancy clothing, pampering, or play time weakens both body and mind, and traps children in immaturity.[78]
  7. Give your children a good moral education. He wrote, “Learning would much sharpen their wits. . . . Good education is better than a great portion.”[79] By education, he meant training a child how to order the whole course of his life. Part of this is training in “good manners,” the outward beauty of a well-ordered life. Gouge had no illusions that good manners could save a person or substitute for inward grace. But he also believed that rudeness and a lack of courtesy and kindness were not consistent with grace.[80]
  8. Give your children a good vocational education. Another part of education for Gouge was preparing a child for “a good calling,” that is, a vocation or honest means to support himself and his family, help the poor, serve his society, and avoid a wasted life.[81] This requires education in fundamentals such as reading and writing, and preparation for a kind of work approved by the general principles of God’s Word. Here parents must find the calling for which their child is best equipped in body and mind — not just to make a lot of money, but to glorify God.[82]
  9. Train your children in godliness. Gouge said that Ephesians 6:4 mandates training in “true piety” with the words “in the . . . admonition of the Lord.” He wrote, “Learning, civility, calling, portion, are all nothing without piety.”[83] Fathers have a special responsibility to maintain family devotions so that the family prays, sings psalms, and reads the Word together. They are to teach the Bible with “forceful and frequent” applications “to fix and settle them in the mind of their children.”[84] Children are not born Christians, but with hearts already totally inclined to evil (Gen. 6:5; Job 11:12). Parents should not say, “That is the minister’s job,” because God explicitly commands them in Deuteronomy 6:7, “thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.” The parent is “a king, a priest, and a prophet” for children in the home, and who knows children better than their own parents?[85] Teach them with daily catechism, real life, and your example.[86]
  10. Discipline your children with rebuke and the rod. This, Gouge pointed out, is what the word nurture in Ephesians 6:4 means: correction with instruction. Discipline must be neither too strict nor too slack, for, he said, “slackness will make children careless of all duty to God and parent; rigor will make them despair.”[87] If verbal reproof is ineffective, the rod must be used as “a means appointed by God,” Gouge said, “to help good nurture and education of children. It is the last remedy that a parent can use: a remedy which may do good when nothing else can.”[88] Spanking of young children must be measured according to the offense committed, however, and must be done in a timely manner, with love, compassion, prayer, and self-control.[89] Love in no way contradicts the parents’ calling to exercise authority over their children. The opposite is true: parents do good to their children by training them to obey, for God promises to bless obedient children (Eph. 6:3).[90]
  11. Provide your children with the means to get started in their vocations and families. Parents should save up for their children (2 Cor. 12:14) so that when they become young adults, they can give them help to launch out into life (Gen. 25:5–6).[91]
  12. Help your children find good spouses. Though our present culture would make marriage a matter primarily of individual romance, Gouge reminded us that in Scripture parents bear a responsibility for the marriages of their children (Gen. 24:4; Jer. 29:6). They must help them find spouses well-suited for them (Gen. 2:18). He did not believe that children should marry without their parents’ blessing, but also did not think parents should force a child to marry someone. Marriage requires “a mutual liking” so that “the parties may willingly with mutual consent join themselves together.”[92]

Christian parents were to help their young people select a suitable mate for life by considering five major criteria: (1) Would the proposed spouse walk with their son or daughter with wisdom and genuine godliness in marriage? Such qualities were necessary for the marriage to be “in the Lord.” (2) Would the proposed spouse fit the biblical description of what a marriage partner is to be? Did the proposed husband have good leadership skills and a loving demeanor? Did the proposed wife show submission and reverence to her own father? A biblical mindset about marriage and a character that reflected that mindset was of utmost importance. (3) Was the proposed spouse mature and properly motivated for entering into marriage? It was necessary to avoid marrying out of wrong motivations, such as the love of money or power. (4) Was the proposed spouse fairly equal to their son or daughter in terms of class and financial resources? It was necessary to avoid being “unequally yoked” culturally and socially, because people did not change classes often or easily three centuries ago. (5) Was the proposed spouse somewhat attractive in the eyes of their son or daughter? It was felt that there should be at least some romantic spark to begin with, though the Puritans taught that most romance would develop after marriage. Note that appearance was the last and least matter to be concerned about; marriages were to be built more on character than on appearance.


Though the Puritans did not worship the family, they recognized the central place of the family in God’s plans for his glory and for the beauty and glory of Christian living. Gouge said, “A family is a little church and a little nation”; in the family are trained the Christians, citizens, officers, and officials of the future.[93] Though we should not follow them slavishly, the Puritans can help us regain the biblical vision for a godly home. In a demonized culture, they help us to see the essential goodness of all that God has created (1 Tim. 4:1–4). In a secularized culture, their words call us to sanctify our marriages and family life by filling them with thanksgiving, the Word of God, and prayer (1 Tim. 4:4–5). In a hyper-sexualized culture, they help us to rebuild the structures of marital sexuality and gender differences so that men and women can flourish in masculinity and femininity. In an anti-authoritarian culture, the Puritans show how authority enables love and honors God.

In many ways, the biblical vision for marriage and raising children comes to us as law. It reveals our sins, uncovers the rebellion of our hearts, humbles us for our wickedness, and displays the justice of God, who rightly condemns those who reject his beautiful, righteous ways.

However, the Bible’s call to build a godly home also comes to us as gospel — good news. The best of husbands is but a shadow of Jesus Christ, who loved his people in their uncleanness and gave himself to wash away their guilt and to purify their lives. The most submissive of wives is but an instance of the great beauty of the true church, which humbly trusts and obeys Jesus as her Lord and Savior. The wisest of parents is a tiny image of the Father in heaven, who adopts sinners into his family and trains them with Word and suffering for eternal life in glory.

You see, the biblical family is ultimately about God’s grace for sinners. It calls us to trust in a gracious Savior and to turn from all that has controlled us to follow him. You cannot build a godly family merely by scriptural teaching plus human willpower. You can walk in this path only by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone, and for the glory of God alone. As Gouge said so beautifully, “Sanctification is not a cause, but an effect of Christ’s love, and follows after His love.”[94] May the love of Christ penetrate your soul, fill your whole being, and transform all your relationships — including those in your own home — so that the beauty and glory of Christian living may shine in your marriage and your family to God’s superlative glory.

Joel R. Beeke (Ph.D.) a minister of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, where he is also the professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics.

[1] William Gouge, Building a Godly Home, Vol. 1, A Holy Vision for Family Life, ed. Scott Brown and Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 20. Parts of this chapter are drawn from my Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Lake Mary, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2008), 317–48. Heartfelt thanks to Paul Smalley for his research assistance.

[2] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 341–42.

[3] Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 30.

[4] Richard Adams, “What are the Duties of Parents and Children; and how are they to be Managed According to Scripture?” Puritan Sermons 1659–1689 (Wheaton, Ill: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981), 2:303–58; Isaac Ambrose, Works of Isaac Ambrose (London: Thomas Tegg & Son, 1872); Richard Baxter, “The Poor Man’s Family Book,” in The Practical Works of Richard Baxter (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996), 4:165–289; Paul Bayne, An Entire Commentary upon the Whole Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1866), 491–563; Robert Bolton, General Directions for a Comfortable Walking with God (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 262–281; Thomas Boston, “Duties of Husband and Wife; Sermon XXIII,” in The Works of Thomas Boston, ed. Samuel M’Millan (Wheaton, Ill: Richard Owen Roberts, 1980), 4:209–18; John Bunyan, “Family Duty,” Free Grace Broadcaster, 170 (1999): 15–28; John Cotton, A Meet Help: Or, a Wedding Sermon (Boston: B. Green & J. Allen, 1699); John Dod and Robert Cleaver, A Godly Form of Household Government (London: Thomas Man, 1598); Thomas Doolittle, “How May the Duty of Daily Family Prayer be Best Managed for the Spiritual Benefit of Every One in the Family?” in Puritan Sermons, 1659–1689, 2:194–272; Thomas Gataker, “A Good Wife God’s Gift,” “A Wife in Deed,” and “Marriage Duties,” in Certain Sermons (London: John Haviland, 1637); Thomas Gataker, A Marriage Prayer (London: John Haviland, 1624), 134–208; William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties (Pensacola: Puritan Reprints, 2006); Matthew Griffith, Bethel: or, a Form for Families (London: Richard Badger, 1633); George Hamond, The Case for Family Worship (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 2005); Matthew Henry, “A Church in the House,” in Complete Works of Matthew Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 1:248–67; William Perkins, “Christian Oeconomy,” in The Works of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward (Appleford, England: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), 416–39; John Robinson, The Works of John Robinson, vol. 3 (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1851); Daniel Rogers, Matrimonial Honour (London: Th. Harper, 1642); Henry Scudder, The Godly Man’s Choice (London: Matthew Simmons for Henry Overton, 1644); Henry Smith, “A Preparative to Marriage,” in The Works of Henry Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, England: Tentmaker Publications, 2002), 1:5–40; William Whately, A Bride-Bush or A Wedding Sermon (Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, 1975); and William Whately, A Care-Cloth or the Cumbers and Troubles of Marriage (Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, 1975).

[5] J. Philip Arthur, “The Puritan Family,” The Answer of a Good Conscience, Westminster Conference, 1997 (London: n.p., 1998), 75–94; Lawrence J. Bilkes, “The Scriptural Puritan Marriage” (unpublished paper for Puritan theology class at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, 2002); E. Braund, “Daily Life Among the Puritans,” The Puritan Papers: Vol. One, ed. J. I. Packer (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2000), 155–66; Francis J. Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (New York: St. Martin’s Press, n.d.), 176–80; Catherine A. Brekus, “Children of Wrath, Children of Grace: Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan Culture of Child Rearing,” in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 300–28; Ezra Hoyt Byington, The Puritan in England and New England (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1897), 221–77; J. T. Cliffe, The Puritan Gentry: The Great Puritan Families of Early Stuart England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 63–82; W. Gary Crampton, What the Puritans Taught (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 2003), 62–72; Gaius Davies, “The Puritan Teaching on Marriage and the Family,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 27, no. 1 (Jan. 1955): 19–30; John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 82–106, 181–90; Daniel Doriani, “The Godly Household in Puritan Theology, 1560–1640” (PhD dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985); Christopher Durston, The Family in the English Revolution (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989); Alice Morse Earle, Customs and Fashions in Old New England (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990); “Form for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church,” in Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, and Church Order, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999), 156–58; Philip J. Greven, “Family Structure in Andover,” Puritanism in Early America, ed. George M. Waller (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Co., 1973); William and Malleville Haller, “The Puritan Art of Love,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 5 (1942): 235–72; Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, “Ordering Their Private World: What the Puritans did to grow spiritually,” Christian History, 13, no. 1 (1994): 16–19; Graham Harrison, “Marriage and Divorce in Puritan Thinking,” The Fire Divine, Westminster Conference, 1996 (London: n.p., 1997), 27–51; Erroll Hulse, Who are the Puritans: And What do they Teach? (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2000), 139–42; James Turner Johnson, A Society Ordained by God: English Puritan Marriage Doctrine in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970); M. M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism: A Chapter in the History of Idealism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 451–66; Morgan, The Puritan Family; Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983); Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 259–73, 355–56; Neil Pronk, “Puritan Christianity: The Puritans at Home,” The Messenger (Sept. 1997): 3–6; Helen Ratner, “The Puritan Family,” Child & Family, 9, no. 1 (1970): 54–60; Darrett B. Rutman, Winthrop’s Boston: A Portrait of a Puritan Town, 1630–1649 (New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1972); Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 39–54, 73–88; Levin Ludwig Schucking, The Puritan Family: A Social Study from the Literary Sources (New York: Schocken Books, 1970); Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); Margo Todd, “Humanists, Puritans and the Spiritualized Household,” Church History, 49, no. 1 (1980): 18–34.

[6] William Gouge, Building a Godly Home, Vol. 1, A Holy Vision for Family Life, ed. Scott Brown and Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013); Building a Godly Home, Vol. 2, A Holy Vision for a Happy Marriage, ed. Scott Brown and Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013); Building a Godly Home, Vol. 3, A Holy Vision for Raising Children, ed. Scott Brown and Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014).

[7] William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties (London: by John Haviland for William Bladen, 1622).

[8] The final section on masters and servants is not included in the recent three-volume modern reprint, but it is included in the 2006 edition referenced in note 4 above.

[9] Brett Usher, “William Gouge,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 23:38.

[10]Usher, “William Gouge,” 23:37.

[11] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 263.

[12] “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” (1549), in The Book of Common Prayer, ed. Brian Cummings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 64, spelling modernized. These words and this order remained unchanged in the 1559 and 1662 editions (pp. 157, 435). Some early Puritan works on marriage maintained this order, but the Puritans gradually moved the third purpose to first place, as was codified in the 1640s by the Westminster divines in the Confession of Faith (24.2). Later Puritans focused more on the Genesis 2:18 mandate for marriage (“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him”) than on the Genesis 1:28 command to be fruitful and multiply. The Dutch Reformed liturgy of the late sixteenth century had already adopted the same order, though more descriptively: “The first reason is that each faithfully assist the other in all things that belong to this life and a better. Secondly, that they bring up the children which the Lord shall give them, in the true knowledge and fear of God, to His glory, and their salvation. Third, that each of them avoiding all uncleanness and evil lusts, may live with a good and quiet conscience” (Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, and Church Order, 156). Cf. Ryken, Worldly Saints, 48.

[13] Ibid., 2:29.

[14] Ibid., 2:29.

[15] Ibid., 2:30.

[16] Ibid., 1:51.

[17] Ibid., 1:51–52.

[18] Ibid., 1:155–56, emphasis original.

[19] Ibid., 2:102.

[20] Ibid., 2:82–84.

[21] Ibid., 2:35.

[22] Ibid., 2:56–57.

[23] Ibid., 2:37.

[24] Ibid., 2:39–40.

[25] Ibid., 2:44.

[26] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 261.

[27] Ryken, Worldly Saints, 40.

[28] Theodore of Tarsus (602–690), cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality From Earliest Times to 1700 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 43.

[29] William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York: Harper, 1957), 122.

[30] Ryken, Worldly Saints, 42.

[31] Gouge, Building a Godly Home, 2:44.

[32] Ibid., 2:46.

[33] Herbert W. Richardson, Nun, Witch, Playmate: The Americanization of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 69.

[34] C. S. Lewis, “Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century,” in Seventeenth Century Studies Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), 75.

[35] Gouge, Building a Godly Home, 2:47.

[36] Ibid., 2:48–50.

[37] Ibid., 2:52.

[38] Ibid., 2:54.

[39] Ibid., 2:188.

[40] Ibid., 2:181.

[41] Ibid., 2:61.

[42] Ibid., 2:62.

[43] Ibid., 2:73–81.

[44] Ibid., 2:194.

[45] Ibid., 2:241–42.

[46] Ibid., 2:215–24.

[47] Ibid., 2:196–236.

[48] Ibid., 2:98–179.

[49] Ibid., 3:3*. The * indicates the page number is from the partially edited Word document, not the edited and typeset edition, which is not yet published.

[50] Ibid., 3:4*.

[51] Ibid., 3:4*.

[52] Ibid., 1:33.

[53] Ibid., 3:51*.

[54] Ibid., 3:52*.

[55] Ibid., 3:6*.

[56] Ibid., 1:161.

[57] Ibid., 3:7–8*.

[58] Ibid., 3:9*.

[59] Ibid., 3:10*.

[60] Ibid., 3:12*.

[61] Ibid., 3:15–37*.

[62] Ibid., 1:162.

[63] Ibid., 1:185.

[64] Ibid., 1:185–86.

[65] Ibid., 3:64*.

[66] Ibid., 1:189–90.

[67] Ibid., 3:69*.

[68] Ibid., 1:180.

[69] Ibid., 3:66*.

[70] Ibid., 3:66*.

[71] Ibid., 3:67*.

[72] Ibid., 3:70*.

[73] Ibid., 3:71*.

[74] Ibid., 3:72*.

[75] Ibid., 1:69–79.

[76] Ibid., 3:82–83*.

[77] Ibid., 3:88*.

[78] Ibid., 3:89*.

[79] Ibid., 3:90*.

[80] Ibid., 3:91–93*.

[81] Ibid., 3:93–94*.

[82] Ibid., 3:95–96*.

[83] Ibid., 3:97*.

[84] Ibid., 1:191.

[85] Ibid., 3:97–98*. For practical tips on parenting under the offices of Christ, see Joel R. Beeke, Parenting by God’s Promises: How to Raise Children in the Covenant of Grace (Orlando, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2011), chaps. 6–14.

[86] Ibid., 3:99–101*.

[87] Ibid., 1:190–91.

[88] Ibid., 3:195*.

[89] Ibid., 3:107–116*.

[90] Ibid., 1:180.

[91] Ibid., 3:122*.

[92] Ibid., 3:119–20*.

[93] Ibid., 1:20.

[94] Ibid., 1:63.

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